Wisconsin voter ID ruling creates confusion

Display showing acceptable forms of photo identification for voting in Wisconsin during a 2012 election.
Display showing acceptable forms of photo identification for voting in Wisconsin during a 2012 election. (File photo)

MADISON (AP) – A court-ordered change to Wisconsin’s photo identification law that’s designed to cut down on voter fraud is creating confusion and may even open the door to the very type of behavior Republican lawmakers were trying to prevent.

Policy makers, attorneys and voter ID experts were struggling Friday with how to interpret a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling from a day earlier, which mandated a change to the law in order to make it constitutional.

The court said the state can’t require applicants for state-issued IDs to present government documents that cost money to obtain, such as a copy of a birth certificate. The court left it to the Division of Motor Vehicles to come up with a solution.

“We don’t know how that’s going to work,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday shortly after the ruling. When asked whether obtaining photo IDs without having to present government-issued documents verifying a person’s identity could result in fraud, Vos said: “It’s got a potential for it.”

The requirement, passed in 2011, is not currently in effect. A state judge blocked it in March 2012 and in May a federal judge struck it down as violating the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. While the state Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional, a federal appeals court would have to reverse U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman’s ruling for the requirement to take effect.

Thirty-four states have passed laws requiring some sort of identification from voters, but only 31 of them are in effect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The push for a voter ID law came from Republicans, who argued for years that such a requirement would cut down on voter fraud and boost public confidence in the integrity of the election process. But opponents say concerns over voter fraud were overblown and not documented, and the law was meant to reduce turnout among minorities and others likely to vote for Democrats.

While the state’s appeal in the federal case continues, the question becomes what to do about the Supreme Court’s order.

Gov. Scott Walker will work with the state departments of Justice and Transportation to address the issue, Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said Friday.

“The purpose of this legislation is to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Patrick said in a written statement. “Governor Walker wants people have access to the documents they need in order to receive the state identification they need to exercise their right to vote.”

No one knows yet how Walker’s administration will react to the court’s order, said Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor and expert in voter ID laws who testified at the federal trial.

But no matter what DOT does, it’s likely to lead to more lawsuits, Burden said.

“There’s really no standards yet for deciding what is a legitimate request (for an ID),” Burden said. “It’s also not clear if the DMV has to advertise this opportunity or it’s something they have to ask about.”

The Legislature may ultimately decide to get involved, especially if it doesn’t agree with what the DOT does to comply, Burden said.

Both Vos and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said they would be open to having the Legislature take up a measure next year to implement the court’s directive.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he considered the court’s direction to be a “very small” step that will save the law from being unconstitutional. He also said he thinks the court’s ruling will bolster his case in federal court.

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